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DVD SAVANT

Strange Behavior
Special Edition


Strange Behavior
Synapse
1981 /Color / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 99 min. / Dead Kids / Street Date October 28, 2008 / 19.95
Starring Michael Murphy, Louise Fletcher, Dan Shor, Fiona Lewis, Arthur Dignam, Dey Young, Marc McClure, Scott Brady, Charles Lane, Elizabeth Cheshire.
Cinematography
Louis Horvath
Production Designer Susanna Moore
Special Makeup Effects Artist Craig Reardon
Film Editor Petra von Oelffen
Original Music Tangerine Dream
Written by Michael Laughlin and Bill Condon
Produced by John Barnett, John Daly, William Fayman, Antony I. Ginnane, David Hemmings
Directed by Michael Laughlin

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Strange Behavior is a quirky teen slasher movie that delivers 100% on mood and context, while not quite serving up a completely satisfying story. Its great ensemble acting creates a weird but believable small-town world. Synapse's new Special Edition DVD is a repackaging of an Elite disc from 2003, stressing the later career success of writer Bill Condon.

The displaced but familiar tone is easily explained. Originally titled Dead Kids, the co-production was filmed in New Zealand and designed to pass for Illinois! A number of imported American stars, including some colorful bit parts, add to the retro appeal. At its best, Strange Behavior plays out in an alternate reality right next door to our own, pre-dating David Lynch's more articulated shadow world of Blue Velvet.

Synopsis:

Teenagers are found horribly mutilated in the small town policed by Chief John Brady (Michael Murphy), and the coroner thinks that more than one assailant is responsible. Brady accepts the help of his girlfriend Barbara Moorehead (Louise Fletcher), while his son Pete (Dan Shor) earns needed college money by volunteering for radical psych experiments at the local college. The suspiciously unethical work of Gwen Parkinson (Fiona Lewis) follows up on the ideas of the late Dr. Le Sange, who still teaches through 16mm films of his lectures. Pete finds a new girlfriend at the research center, Caroline (Dey Young), but starts to ... behave strangely ...

Strange Behavior has an engaging appearance and an odd tone, a feeling of 'fresh deja vu.' The cars are mostly old American models and much of the clothing has a 50s American feel. The color design is also distinguished and Louis Horvath's Panavision photography finds fresh ways to enliven scenes.

(all spoilers)

Michael Laughlin's gruesome thriller came out right in the middle of the slasher-chic phase of American Horror started by Halloween but typified by Friday the 13th: a series of meaningless but entertaining bloody deaths are explained as a low-grade curse from the past involving child abuse or a traumatic crime. Technically, Strange Behavior fits right in -- as soon as we see a researcher's remote-controlled chicken, we know where the killers are coming from. The tired hero's theory that the psychology department at the college is responsible for these and earlier killings, turns out to be 100% accurate.

If it had any conviction, the movie would be ridiculously right wing. Those damn liberal scientists not only killed the Police Chief's young wife, they're still conducting a murderous vendetta against the locals who hounded mad psychologist La Sange to an early grave. If anything, the script is a gloss on those late-30's potboilers in which Boris Karloff takes revenge on the jury that hanged him, or the crooks who double-crossed him.

The murders get an A+ for originality and a C for impact. The first scene is the worst in the film, with a really bad knifing seen in silhouette. Elsewhere, Craig Reardon's makeup effects are okay (especially in a brief cut of a teen chopped up and strung up as a scarecrow), but the subsequent knifing attacks are repetitive and lacking in imagination.

Strange Behavior is a complete reversal of the usual slasher film, where the murders are detailed and the characters non-existent. We immediately take a liking for the people in this story, and continue to care about them. Michael Murphy holds the center, and is made more likeable by the adoration of Louise Fletcher. Teen leads Dan Shor and Dey Young are charming, and Superman alumnus Marc McClure is okay as one of the possessed teens. On the outskirts of genre expectations, we get Scott Brady (Johnny Guitar) as a visiting detective and old Charles Lane (the real estate creep from It's a Wonderful Life, 35 years earlier) as the Chief's grumpy assistant.

Director Laughlin creates a relaxed and socially positive 50s world, kind of a Teevee Land made more realistic and less hyper. No drugs are in evidence but the partying kids are definitely into cigarettes and beer (and Coca-Cola product placement). Chief Brady goes around informally in shirtsleeves, and takes the abuse of his assistant without complaint. When the coroner wants to show him the gory wounds on the corpses, the Chief balks and begs off, a nice touch that keeps him vulnerable for the climactic ordeal. Woody Allen regular Michael Murphy plays the character straight and interesting - he's shown clipping his toenails in his first scene. Given a non-harpy to play, Louise Fletcher is warm and charming, just the kind of woman you'd want your dad to remarry.

Laughlin's retro feel results in a strange displacement of tone. The kids actually dance at the teen party (huh?) and look fresh-faced and positively charged under their party costumes. The stylization has them hopping wildly to Lou Christie's Lightning Strikes, and for a moment they dance in unison, with a coordinated camera move. The effect is very weird ... the old song and the primitive choreography have a strong nostalgic feel - but for what?

Likewise, the central plot hook is a strange throwback to earlier forms. Anyone ever subjected to one of those stupid undergraduate psych tests lampooned in Ghostbusters will flinch at the craziness seen here -- remote controlled chickens, a gooney guru lecturing from beyond the grave. Just as we decide that these gimmicks are fairly original, along comes the icily beautiful Fiona Lewis, with her oh-so-perfect red hairdo (the model for Sean Young in Blade Runner, the commentary tells us). Lewis uses a faintly seductive M.O. when dealing with her male experimental subjects. First thing we know, gullible Pete is being given experimental drugs, and a traumatic-looking injection.  1 The Fiona Lewis connection is interesting; Laughlin was the producer of The Whisperers in England, saw her in Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers and cast her in his own Joanna. Ten years pass, and whoop, she's back working for him again.

The good news is that the unpredictableStrange Behavior definitely goes against the grain of the horror film circa 1981: the killings aren't milked for gore, and aren't the center of interest. This picture got a solid release, when gutbuckets like City of the Living Dead were grabbing fan attention but playing mostly outside the mainstream. The oddball-but-square sensibilities of the filmmakers create an interesting, humorous world, tamer than David Lynch but less militantly artistic. The overall intelligent tone garnered positive reviews from 1981 critics, grateful for not having to endure another stupid gore-fest. It's a B+ as a horror film and an A- as entertainment.


Elite's DVD of Strange Behavior is an identical re-pressing of the 2003 Elite disc, down to menus and extras. This is not a bad thing, as the feature looks and sounds brand-new, with a punchy Tangerine Dream soundtrack and a sharp 16:9 enhanced transfer. The two deleted scenes are fairly forgettable but a nice still selection is included. The best part is the commentary by the film's writer and two teen stars, twenty years later. Writer Condon plays the first victim in the movie. He explains how the film came to be made in New Zealand with cars collected from car clubs, etc. Young and Shor are pretty funny throughout and dispense good info that fans of the film will appreciate, such as how the famous hypo scene was filmed.  2

The cover art returns to the effective ad graphic from '81, a huge close-up of Dan Shor being jabbed in the eye with a needle -- the image that sold the entire movie. Michael Laughlin came back two years later with a bigger hit, the curiously flat Strange Invaders. It goes all-out for 50s Sci-Fi nostalgia but seems to work much too hard to achieve its meager result.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Strange Behavior rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary by writer Bill Condon and actors Dan Shor and Dey Young, trailer, deleted scenes, Isolated music score, Photo gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 31, 2008


Footnotes:

1. Strange Behavior has a few surprises, like the interrupted hypodermic-to-the-eye scene. Fiona Lewis has to leave Pete alone, and genre expectations dictate that he'll escape. Deviating from form, after the interruption is disposed of, Fiona slinks back to her still-bound Pete and follows through, ramming the needle into the corner of his eye socket. I'm told that audiences screamed at this almost bloodless variation on the Fulci signature scene.
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2. An incredible, fabulous SAVANT EXCLUSIVE: Special Effects Makeup Artist Craig Reardon -- and ace raconteur -- explains the genesis of the film's queasiest effect in complete detail:

"Makeup artist Tom Burman was going to do this New Zealand-based film, then called Dead Kids. I was working with and for Tom on a film called The Beast Within, just in a functionary role. He'd committed to do Dead Kids but had left himself a loophole: if his requirements were not met in advance, he would have to pass on it. One of these was that he needed to receive the life mask of the actor who would be playing the main menace in sufficient time to prepare the necessary disguise makeup.

When this life mask arrived with only about five days remaining before Burman or a designated assistant would have to arrive in New Zealand, it was already at least a week late by the terms Burman had laid down. He was either going to pass on the film, or ... This was where I came in. Tom explained the situation to me. He was aware there was no time to prepare this film properly, but, as someone starting out, he thought perhaps I might be interested in taking it over, fully cognizant of the difficulty, looking at it as an opportunity more than a liability. I decided to go for it. Tom furnished me with the life mask and his blessing, and I was excused from having to continue on The Beast Within. From that point it was a mad rush to get ready as best I could in five short days.

The plane trip to N.Z. took something like ten to fifteen hours. By the time I arrived the sun was coming up on the following day. I looked forward to getting to my hotel room and catching some sleep. Instead of my hotel, I was taken to the shooting set. I thought, fine, I'll keep it together, meet a few people, and THEN I'll get to go to my hotel room, pull the curtains and go to sleep! They were shooting on a campus in Auckland. I wearily trooped to the set. Surprise, surprise! They were shooting the scene in which a sinister female scientist (Fiona Lewis) injects a mysterious mind-altering drug into the bloodstream of our high school protagonist----through his EYE!

It made no sense, but the creep-out factor was certainly obvious. For a horror movie, hypodermic needles and eyeballs are a marriage made in heaven!

Lo and behold, after a perfunctory "Glad you're here!" they expected me to provide the effect of the needle going into the kid's eye, right then! I was thrown right into it from the moment of my arrival. Sleep would just have to wait. Good thing I was only 27, at the time. Burman had provided, in addition to the life mask, a glass hypodermic syringe with a screw-on chromed tip, and had merely replaced the needle with a regular drill, or heavy wire the size of a very thin drill. The idea was that the drill bit, not REALLY resembling (in my own opinion) a hypodermic needle, would slide back into the interior of the syringe upon making contact with the actor, anywhere it 'touched down'.

But it was way too obvious to me that the drill bit didn't look like a needle. What's more, it was very evident that it was sliding back into the syringe rather than appearing to remain in place and 'penetrate' the eyeball. I had to figure out a way to make this work, on the spot, in time for them to shoot it.

I asked them first of all to find me a dispensable, authentic hypodermic needle, one that would actually fit the syringe. They did. I took it outside and ground down the tip, using the sidewalk as a kind of impromptu grindstone. I was able to get the needle to fit the tip and slide in and out of it. Plus it looked like a needle, because it was a needle. But you could still easily see that it was sliding up into the syringe. What next? I got a guy from the lighting crew to provide me with some diffusion, which is like translucent paper, and a piece of colored gel in a kind of straw-greenish color. I rolled up a small cylinder of the greenish gel and taped it to hold its shape. Then, I rolled the frosted paper into another cylinder and made sure that it fit OVER the greenish cylinder. When it would do that, and slide over it easily, I taped it, too.

So, the greenish cylinder (the lighting gel) was inserted into the body of the glass syringe, with the frosted paper cylinder fitted over that. The actual glass plunger for the syringe was not used -- the frosted paper cylinder stood-in for it. I thought it was a good simulation of ground glass, the kind used for old-fashioned apothecary stoppers. I showed this to the director and the actors, particularly Fiona Lewis. I also showed Dan Shor that the needle was not sharp. It could be placed right up against the inner corner of his open eye without the least discomfort, much less worry of hurting him, and would slide back into the syringe without effort.

When they filmed it, Lewis mimed pushing the (rather long!) needle right into Dan's eye, and then with her thumb she 'injected' the weird serum. Or in actuality, she pushed the paper cylinder down over the greenish-clear cylinder. It LOOKED like a plunger injecting a weird, green serum! Then, as I'd explained to all, if she withdrew the syringe rapidly, no one would notice that in fact no needle ever came back out of Dan's eye -- because it was still stuck up inside the syringe, is why!

This became the famous 'creep-out' scene for this movie, in spite of later scenes with much more violent stuff." -- Craig Reardon

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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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